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PINELLAS' LAWYER WORKED BOTH SIDES

Susan Churuti represented the county and Property Appraiser Jim Smith as a citizen.

Property Appraiser Jim Smith claimed he was a victimized private landowner when he approached Pinellas County about purchasing his supposedly "devastated" lot on Brooker Creek.

But within days of his attorney threatening a lawsuit alleging county crews had damaged the land doing flood control work, Smith secured a legal advocate no private citizen could hire: Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti.

In an unusual move, Churuti would represent both the county and Smith as a private citizen in negotiations that would result last month in the county buying the land for $225,000, nearly quadruple the value Smith's office assigned the property for tax purposes.

The revelation that the county's top attorney represented both the buyer and seller comes nearly three weeks after the St. Petersburg Times first reported on the controversial land deal.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said Churuti never told him of the talks with Smith that began in mid March, despite the fact that the two county leaders meet weekly.

But County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan was aware of Churuti's work. He, along with Smith, signed conflict of interest waivers March 19 that would allow Churuti to represent both sides.

On July 2, Duncan told the Times he first learned of the county's interest in Smith's property in a meeting with Spratt shortly before the commission unanimously approved the deal June 5.

Duncan explained Monday that he believed he was being asked when he learned that the sale would be coming before the commission for a vote - not when he first learned of the county's interest in Smith's property.

"If I gave a false impression that I didn't know anything at all, that was not the case," Duncan said.

Churuti also played another prominent role in the negotiations. Her office would provide the key rationale Spratt has cited for why the county needed to purchase the land: that it lacked the legal right to have entered Smith's property to do flood control work after the 2004 hurricanes. That opinion is contrary to how county flood crews have operated for years.

Churuti has said that she saw no problem with representing both sides, because their interests were the same, with the county wanting to buy the property because of its flood mitigation value and Smith wanting to sell.

On whether it was appropriate for her to represent Smith in a claim he was bringing against the county as a private citizen, she said, "My motivation was to try to save the county money and resolve the issue. In retrospect, do I wish I hadn't done it? That's a different question."

Smith, 67, has said his anger stemmed from the alleged destruction of the plot.

County work crews, he maintains, damaged the 1.5-acre parcel where he hoped to build a home.

Staff writers Joe Childs, Theresa Blackwell and Jonathan Abel contributed to this report.

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